This sermon was preached at Worcester College, Oxford, on the feast of All Saints 2009 by the Vice-Principal, Fr Damian Feeney.
First of all, thank you for the kind invitation to be with you this evening as we celebrate the Communion of Saints. Part of the difficulty with this feast is that it’s actually quite difficult to define, as it were, the terms of the engagement. On one level, today is about those who have attained to the beatific vision in Heaven: those whose self-emptying enables Christ’s presence to increase, while ego decreases; and whose lives are lives of many dimensions, lived to the full, since they are lives lived in full consciousness of God’s grace, mercy and glory.
Throughout the church’s year we learn of the qualities and stories of specific saints throughout the church’s year, seeing those lives as reflections of the glory of Christ himself; and then tonight we consider the Saints en masse, in what Eric Milner-White referred to as the multitude which none can number – a glorious image which resonates within Isaiah’s vision of new heavens, a new earth - words later on re-stated in the book of Revelation.
Within that multitude we celebrate not only those whose sanctity is well known to the church on earth, but also those whose saintliness is known to God alone, or who, whilst lacking the formal processes of canonization, have been saintly people in local communities, familiar contexts, perhaps in our own personal stories. So we are drawn to a more general reflection upon the nature of holiness itself – of what it means to be holy, both in the contexts of history and in the confusions of the present day.
All these lives – the well known, the un-remembered, the half-acknowledged – are lives lived out in response to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the image of the invisible God. Many good, holy and faithful men and women came before Christ, and in their way point to him, but they were lives lived in messianic hope rather than a sense of response to Christ’s witness. Isaac Watts, who penned the memorable words for tonight’s anthem, reminds us of the truth that saints point to Jesus;
We ask them whence their victory came,
They, with one united breath,
Ascribe the conquest to the Lamb,
Their triumph to his death.
That’s all well and good, and saints form a considerable part of the connection between Jesus’ story and ours; we are sustained by stories of saintly living, whether they be distant or closer to home, because they are stories shaped by Jesus’ story; we cheerfully acknowledge that, human nature being what it is, the fact and detail about a saint’s life can become obscured over time by legend and embroidery in much the same way that we treat the cult of celebrity today. Maybe we don’t mind that too much, since it’s part of our essential recognition of the saint – and therefore a sign of love – to treat them in this way.
Perhaps we should also pause at this point to acknowledge that the doings and dealings of the saints are not always popular: holiness can, in some forms, be a downright irritant. I think it was Clive James who once observed ‘You can always tell a person who lives for others by the looks on the faces of the others.’
If that’s true, then the appeal of the saint is far from unconditional. Sanctity is attractive to some, unappealing to others. To some the way of the saint stands in the way of freedom rather than pointing to it. Newman’s portrayal of the demons in The Dream of Gerontius paints the saint as antithetical to the notion of independent thinking and intellectual freedom for which an august College such as this self-evidently stands. Newman penned these words for the demon’s mouths:
The mind bold and independent,
The purpose free,
So we are told, must not think to have the ascendant
What's a saint? One whose breath doth the air taint before his death;
A bundle of bones, which fools adore...when life is o'er;
These are words which still resonate, given the recent visit of the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux to this country and city. Here relics were accorded the kind of attention normally only given to those at the height of celebrity – an estimated 300,000 visitors across the country – and, according to one pilgrim interviewed by the Times Online, (and clearly anxious to plug in to the prevailing zeitgeist,) ‘She’s got the X Factor.’
To others, she was indeed a bundle of bones, adored by fools. In contemporary
The task of defining sanctity today is therefore, as ever, a challenging one. On one level, the counter cultural nature of sanctity means that it is what it has always been – an appeal to the divine, defying opposing tides and currents, to risking unpopularity, or worse. It’s well known that there were more Martyrs created in the last century than in any other before it – we at St. Stephen’s House were reminded of this last week as we commemorated those who lost their lives during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 – an historical event which receives relatively little attention when compared to the Holocaust or to Stalinist Purges, but where over one million Christians lost their lives.
We should remember, too, that Martyrs, in many instances, died not only at the hands of those who wished to kill Christianity, but also at the hands of fellow Christians in conflict and disagreement.
One indispensible trait in the genuinely holy is a disturbing, prophetic edge which can lead to uncomfortable encounter. To try to follow Christ at all is an invitation out of places of comfort into wilderness places: the saints are those who, in word and action, showed an integration of living and believing in which no part of their lives were immune from God, where nothing was held back, where the free response sought to equal the measure of God’s generous gift in Christ. Their words, lives, deeds and writings beckon humanity out of the darkness of soulless, inanimate living into the fullness of life which is the very glory of God.
Saints are good for all of us, whether we are of faith or not. For the faithful, they point to the very root of our being, who is God himself. For the seeker after truth, they remind us that in a celebrity – ridden world of narcissism and veneer they represent the humility which lies at the heart of all compassionate human dialogue. Their calling is, of course, the calling of all Christian people – God’s desire that we should be numbered among them, living signs of the reality of His presence, activity and love in his world. May their lives, their witnesses, and their prayers surround our steps as we journey on, until Christ is all in all.